Sean Hannity is already one of Fox News’ loudest voices, and has put his Trumpist stamp on the network’s broadcasts. Now, his influence has spread to the once-independent digital news operation, staffers say, and it’s largely thanks to a little-known former Hannity producer named Porter Berry.
Over the past several years, the conservative tenor of Fox News’ opinion coverage has seeped more and more into the company’s popular digital brands. Few at the network deserve more credit for this transformation than Berry, who moved from television to the digital side in 2018 after stints with Hannity, midday talk show The Five, and Bill O’Reilly, and who staff say has helped mold the websites more in the image of the network’s right-wing opinion programming.
According to multiple staffers, Berry’s editorial vision and management style has resulted in the departure of key digital news employees like Jason Ehrich, the former executive vice president of audience development and strategic partnerships, and Greg Wilson, the former managing editor of the Fox News website, among others.
Berry has also been the subject of a number of HR complaints from staffers, multiple people familiar with the matter say. Berry declined to comment for this story but a Fox News spokesperson said, “We do not comment on confidential personnel matters,” adding: “Since taking over FOX News Digital in 2018, Porter Berry has not only innovated the platform, but ushered in extraordinary growth by cultivating one of the most engaged and loyal audiences in news. We are incredibly proud of his accomplishments and look forward to continued success thanks to his unrivaled digital strategy.”
Officially, Berry oversees the Fox News and Fox Business Network websites, along with the network’s other digital properties; and he reports to Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott and President Jay Wallace. But unofficially, multiple people familiar with the situation said Berry has continued to play an active role in Hannity’s primetime show, acting as a “shadow executive producer,” offering advice and suggesting ideas.
Berry’s editorial influence over one of the network’s highest-rated programs and its massively popular online properties has raised eyebrows among staff, and raised questions about the increasingly ill-defined border between the network’s on-air conservative opinion commentary and its news operation.
The Hannity relationship has influenced both operations, with Berry playing a role in shaping his former show, and the primetime, pro-Trump host gaining more allies and influence in the digital operation.
According to multiple network insiders, Berry remains informally involved with Hannity, keeping in regular contact with the eponymous host, talking on the phone and texting multiple times daily and even putting him on speakerphone in his office (during the pandemic, Berry has worked from Fox’s HQ in midtown Manhattan). He’s also regularly fed ideas to Hannity’s current executive producer, Tiffany Fazio, largely after he’s already spoken to the Fox News star earlier in the day, per multiple people familiar with the situation.
Through his close ties with Berry, according to insiders, Hannity and the network’s right-wing opinion side have managed, as if by proxy, to influence the content of FoxNews.com, the channel’s website.
At the same time, Hannity’s sphere of influence has become all-encompassing and his nominal bosses are reluctant to rein him in, former Fox News executive John Huddy, a close confidant of the channel’s late, disgraced founder Roger Ailes, told The Daily Beast.
“The fact is that Sean Hannity is untouchable, on the one hand, and they’re terrified that he’s going to do something that is so offensive that it’s going to bring everybody down,” Huddy said. “He’s come really close a few times. He’s the devil in the deep blue sea. They’re terrified of him but they can’t lose him. If they lose him, they know they’re fucked. And they don’t have a Roger Ailes to call him in and kick his ass.”
Berry has also plucked employees from the opinion side of Fox News to staff the news website. He’s brought in a former producer for Hannity, as well as multiple former Fox & Friends producers to edit the site. Berry’s deputy, Stefanie Wheeler Choi, is a fellow former staffer on The Five who followed him over to the digital side as a managing editor and executive producer. The elevation of Choi, who is seen as Berry’s right-hand person, on the digital news side has apparently rankled other staffers as she had no previous digital experience.
“She carries out whatever task he needs done like a good soldier,” a recently departed Fox online staffer said.
But the lower-ranking troops, especially those working for the website, haven’t exactly fallen in line. Some digital staff have expressed discomfort at the increasingly rightward tilt of the site. Multiple network insiders told The Daily Beast that staffers have felt uncomfortable putting bylines on thinly sourced stories, including several pre-election pieces aggregating the New York Post’s questionable reporting on Hunter Biden. “Staffers did not want their byline on Hunter Biden because it didn’t stand up,” a current employee said. “It could be a career-killer.”
“The digital staff has no respect for Porter,” said another current Fox News employee. “They see him as someone who is driven by everything that is antithetical to real journalism—snubbing truth for distortion that furthers an ideological agenda, prioritizing factory-scale productivity over quality that you get only through taking the time to confirm, to check, to challenge information and then writing and rewriting it to ensure a balanced and fair presentation of that news, and echoing the cable channel’s Republicans-are-always-right mantra.”
In an interview with the blog TV News Check, Berry dismissed concerns about web readers conflating the site’s news and commentary, saying that the opinion pieces from colleagues including Hannity are “clearly labeled,” though he did not mention that he himself continues to play an informal role in shaping Hannity’s show.
“I think the audience is really smart. If they see something from Sean Hannity, they know he is an opinion guy. And if they see a news piece, they read it as a news piece,” he said. “The audience is really savvy and able to read a lot of news, information and analysis and make an informed decision because we are giving them every angle, comprehensively, on every story both from the news side of it and the analysis side.”
Close observers of Fox News’ digital properties note that the main site has skewed even further to the right under Berry’s leadership. Under its previous leader, former Today show producer and Daily Mail editor-in-chief Noah Kotch, the site more closely resembled a right-leaning tabloid, mixing breaking news with politics, salacious crime stories, and celebrity news.
But in recent months, the website—ostensibly part of the network’s “straight news” division—has leaned more into aggregation of conservative culture-war stories and straight write-ups of commentary delivered on opinion shows like Tucker Carlson Tonight and Hannity.
At the same time, the site has been called out for burying or wildly spinning news that is unflattering or negative for Trump. For instance, when the coronavirus pandemic first exploded in the United States at the end of February, most news outlets focused their top headlines on the market panic amid the growing crisis. The main story on the Fox News website, however, was about Joe Biden walking back his story about being arrested while visiting Nelson Mandela in South Africa. The site’s top story that day on the coronavirus, meanwhile, focused on Trump attacking Democrats for their reaction to the pandemic.
“For many years, there was a distinction between the channel and the website, where the focus of digital was primarily news with a smattering of opinion articles that focused on both sides of any issue,” another current staffer told The Daily Beast. “Now, the website has slowly become another outlet for the channel’s right-wing opinion on-air talent. Their divisive commentaries now take center stage on the website’s homepage while the articles around them target anything Democrat and boost anything GOP, regardless of what is right or wrong.”
Fox News digital has boasted a record year of traffic under Porter with October said to be its top performing month with “multiplatform views” of close to 2.2 billion. The site has also broken a series of stories including the news that Scott Atlas resigned from his post as President Trump’s special advisor on coronavirus and Rep. Mark Walker announcing his 2022 candidacy for Senate in North Carolina.
Fox staffers also believe Berry’s abrasive management style and editorial vision has played a role in the exit of several high-level staffers, including Ehrich, the former executive and social media boss.
One recently departed Fox staffer described Berry’s leadership style as wanting to “toe the company line regardless of the fact gathering or editorial importance of a story.” The source, who spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation, said Berry seemingly wants to “up the opinion portions of the website over the straight news or creative aspects” resulting in staffers feeling as though “he didn’t care about the people who worked hard every day to make [Fox’s website] what it was.” People familiar with the situation said, for example, Berry has changed the timings and size of editorial meetings to shut out dissenters.
According to multiple insiders, Ehrich was forced out after Berry marginalized him over a series of months, gradually seeing more and more of his duties and responsibilities taken away and assumed by Berry himself. The exit of the former executive, who is said to have run the site’s social-media platforms in a non-partisan fashion—something insiders fear may now change under Berry’s direction—was described as essentially a slo-mo firing by one person familiar with the situation.
“[Berry] terrorizes digital staff with capricious firings and moves people with families to the night shift as he does not have a family,” a person with knowledge of the situation told The Daily Beast. “Everything is done in a black hole of fear.”
Ehrich did not respond to a request for comment. And he is far from the only person who has departed Fox News Digital due to Berry’s leadership. According to eight network insiders and current staffers, at least five top editors and writers have either fled or been pushed out over the past few months.
Greg Wilson, formerly the website’s managing editor and the person who reportedly made the call to publish the debunked Seth Rich story, left in October to take on a similar role with the Washington Examiner. According to a person familiar with the situation, Wilson left because he couldn’t work under Berry—and Berry did not like him.
“It felt like Wilson was shown the door rather than shoved through it. He was sidelined for sure, that was obvious by the moves Porter did,” a current Fox staffer told The Daily Beast. “[Wilson’s] departure was a blow to the team’s morale. The team’s morale was already low, with all of the changes, and not just from this year.”
Besides Ehrich and Wilson, other recent departures have included Fox News Digital executive producer Justin Craig along with a digital editor/producer, a senior news editor, a managing politics editor, and a senior features writer.
Despite the turmoil within Berry’s ranks, his reputation inside Fox remains mixed. For example, people familiar with the matter said, he remains a popular figure among many of the network’s on-air personalities. And some staffers on the digital side have felt that he has tried harder than his predecessors to get increased on-air exposure for their work.
But other staffers wonder at what cost. “He is driving everyone out. He is not a journalist and never worked in news a day in his life,” one current Fox employee said. “He only knows opinion.”
—Diana Falzone was an on-camera and digital reporter for FoxNews.com from 2012 to 2018. In May 2017, she filed a gender discrimination and disability lawsuit against the network and settled, and left the company in March 2018.